Holidays offer time to learn family health history

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Saturday, December 22, 2007
— Ruth Anderson’s research of her family genealogy has led her to many places including a trip to Vermont last summer.

“I took my husband through a lot of graveyards,” said Anderson, a member of the Rock County Genealogical Society.

During her research, she’d noticed several men in her family had died at a young age—her great grandfather died at 42 while one of his sons died at 16.

“You wonder why,” she said.

She found they both had diabetes and that the disease ran in the family.

Knowing your family’s health history is important because it gives you a reflection of what’s possible for yourself, said Dr. Christopher Harkin of Mercy’s Evansville clinic. Having the history on record helps in emergency situations and can help doctors make decisions about diagnosis and treatment, he said.

Through Anderson’s research, she’s found her family has a pattern of high cholesterol.

“It gives you something to talk about more at family gatherings,” she jokes.

And now is the perfect time.

“This is a good opportunity with everyone being around (during the holidays) to get general ideas of diseases that have occurred in the family,” Harkin said.

Key things to find out about are heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure, he said. You should trace the health history back to at least your grandparents, he said, and you should include aunts and uncles.

For each disease or health problem, you should find out what age the relative was diagnosed.

“It’s usually an illness in the family that causes you to start looking,” Anderson said.

“People say, ‘Well I don’t have this, my husband doesn’t have it, so where did my child get it from?,’” she said.

In Anderson’s case, her mother was adopted, so it took some digging to find history from her mother’s biological family.

“You need to spend the time to talk to your elderly living relatives while you still can,” she said.

When you know what diseases and other patterns are in your family, make a list and tell your doctor. Harkin suggests carrying a piece of paper with you with two lists: medications you’re taking and family history, such as “Grandmother died of heart attack at age 50.”

“It could be very useful in an emergency situation,” he said.

It’s also handy when you go to the doctor’s office and have to fill out family history forms.

A large portion of patients Harkin sees isn’t aware of family history, but more are becoming aware.

“People are starting to realize how significant these thing are,” he said.

Doctors can run blood and other tests to see if you have a certain disease that runs in your family, he said.

“Make sure that the physicians that are taking care of you have a good idea of what you’re family history is to help tailor your medical needs,” he said. “The more you know about your medical history, the better health care you can receive.”

To learn more
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently launched its Family Health Initiative, which includes a free software site that allows users to create a family health tree. It is available at familyhistory.hhs.gov.

Another resource to learn about your family health history is death notices, said Ruth Anderson of the Rock County Genealogical Society. Her organization, at 933 Mineral Point Ave., Janesville, offers books to decipher some of the terms used years ago into modern terms, she said.

Last updated: 10:31 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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